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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON THE WORLD CUP: FRANCE '98

As Usual, Brazil Stands Alone

Group A: Despite extraordinary talent, defending champion is having some difficulty playing as a team.

June 09, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Having won the World Cup four times and as the only person in history to have accomplished that feat, Mario "Lobo" Zagallo has a certain arrogance about him.

Brazil's coach does not, for example, suffer fools gladly.

But that does not mean he won't select them to play for Brazil when nothing less than a fifth world championship is at stake.

Which brings us to one Edmundo Alves de Souza Neto, a firebrand striker better known simply as Edmundo and widely known by his nickname, "Animal."

A year or so ago, Zagallo had the following to say about the 27-year-old Edmundo, who collects red cards by the handful and whose disciplinary record rivals that of Denis Rodman:

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 10, 1998 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 7 Sports Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Soccer--The individual schedules of games with each World Cup group in Tuesday's special section listed Eastern times. The complete schedule of games on Page S8 listed the correct Pacific times.

"If I were his father, I would have suggested he see a psychiatrist," Zagallo said.

Today, he might well be wishing he had suggested that anyway.

Last week, barely three weeks after being included in Brazil's World Cup squad against Zagallo's better judgment, Animal went crackers again. Unhappy at being left out of the lineup to play Athletic Bilbao of Spain in a warm-up game, Edmundo got into a heated argument that ended with his punching teammate Leonardo in the face.

Zagallo went ballistic. The chances of Edmundo starting in the World Cup opening game against Scotland on Wednesday now appear slight, especially recalling what the coach had said long before he picked his team.

"Whatever I do, I'm going to be criticized," he said. "Everybody wants him [Edmundo] in the team. But what happens if I pick him and then he gets sent off during a match in the World Cup? Then they'll be saying I shouldn't have selected him."

But Zagallo's options are dwindling. He has Ronaldo, who will be the focal point of Brazil's attack, but has lost Romario to injury. Bebeto looked less than impressive in a 3-0 victory last Wednesday over a weak Andorra team. And Edmundo is being Edmundo.

No one feels sorry for the defending world champions, however. The team is so talent-laden that in terms of technical skill and playing ability, there is no weak link among the 22. What does keep Zagallo awake at night at the Chateau de la Grande Romaine in the village of Lesigny where the Brazilians are based, is how to find a way to get his players to click collectively.

The necessary cohesion has not been there and while warm-up games do not prove much, two of the more significant such matches this spring proved troublesome.

Brazil managed to defeat Germany, 2-1, in Stuttgart on March 25, but was neither impressive nor dominant. It took some individual skill by Ronaldo to produce the game-winner.

A 1-0 loss to Argentina in Rio de Janeiro the next month only served to underline the problem.

The newspapers in Brazil have been having a field day pointing out the shortcomings of the squad as a whole.

"The team is like a flock of sheep. When let loose in the field, each one wanders his own way," said Correio Braziliense. Even Pele has pointed out the weakness.

"We have a lot of good players," he said in Tokyo in April. "Brazil can decide a game with one piece of individual play from Roberto Carlos or Dungaor Ronaldo. But Zagallo doesn't yet have a team that you can say is trained to play together. That's the problem."

When the Brazilian team left Rio for Paris on May 21, Zagallo was well aware that the defending champions are not necessarily going to be the champions after July 12.

"We're not leaving here thinking we're the best," he said, a rare admission from a man who frequently points out that he has won the World Cup more times than Pele--as a player in 1958 and 1962, as a coach in 1970 and as technical director in 1994.

Earlier, he had bemoaned the short time Brazil had to prepare for the World Cup. As defending champion, it did not have to go through the qualifying process which usually toughens teams and cements them as a unit.

Still, Brazil will remain the World Cup favorite until it is beaten. That's the way it has always been.

"If Brazil loses, it's absurd," said Leonardo. "If we win it's normal. It's like fighting with a drunk. If you lose, it's ridiculous, and if you win, it's cowardice."

Leonardo has not been fighting with a drunk, only with an Animal, one whose unquestioned skills could still make this Brazil's World Cup if he can somehow curb his temper.

"I don't have to promise anything," Edmundo said before he left Brazil. "I just want to do my job well and represent the Brazilian people in the best way possible."

"I want to fulfill my dreams at this World Cup."

Well, nice start, anyway.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GROUP A

The Schedule

WEDNESDAY

Brazil vs. Scotland , 8:30 a.m. (ESPN, Ch. 34)

Morocco vs. Norway, noon (ESPN, Ch. 34)

JUNE 16

Scotland vs. Norway, 8:30 a.m. (ESPN2, Ch. 34)

Brazil vs. Morocco, noon (ESPN, Ch. 34)

JUNE 23

Scotland vs. Morocco, noon (ESPN2, Ch. 34*)

Brazil vs. Norway, noon (ESPN, Ch. 34)

* Highlights

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